Fun with Solarized colors

In this post, I will go over my configuration to set the Solarized light/dark themes in linux. In addition, I'll share my tricks to easily toggle between these 2 themes across all applications.

Table of contents:

  1. What is Solarized?
  2. Configure Solarized with ...
  3. Resulting script
  4. Conclusion

Below are the applications I will refer to:

  • Arch Linux: Lightweight rolling-release Linux distribution.
  • I3: Tiling window manager.
  • Termite: Keyboard-centric VTE-based terminal.
  • Tmux: Terminal multiplexer to easily switch between programs in a single terminal.
  • NeoVim: Vim fork, text editor.

What is Solarized?

Solarized is a color palette designed to be very readable in both light and dark modes, using only 16 colors. The colors were chosen from the CIELAB color space, which smartly arranges colors visible to the human eye.

solarized palette

There are many other interesting color schemes out there, like gruvbox, but I won't discuss the differences between each palette in this article.

I have been using Solarized for several years now. A recurrent issue when setting up my system is to homogeneize colors across applications).

While it would be nice to see applications reuse default colors, they unfortunately define their own set of colors, and we therefore need to copy the solarized color palette in each of these configuration files.

Imagine you are running Vim within Tmux, both setup with solarized dark colors, and want to switch to the light theme because you're working outside or near a window around noon. You might already have a vim binding allowing you to toggle the colorscheme mode within your current session, but then you'll be struck by the high contrast between the tmux dark colors shown in other panes and the vim light colors in your current pane. Moreover, if you'd like to reopen a new vim session, you'll be back to the default theme, which is rather annoying.

Solarized contrast in Vim and Tmux

Here's how I smoothly transition between light and dark mode for all applications using a shortcut.

Configure Solarized with ...


Xresources is a user-level configuration dotfile, used to set X resources used by X client applications.

I truly wish applications would comply entirely to the colors specified in the Xresources so that we wouldn't need to configure our palette in so many different places.

Therefore, I went and created 2 files, called ~/.Xresources-light and ~/.Xresources-dark files, then symlinked the current theme to ~/.Xresources.

Example for ~/.Xresources-dark:

! Solarized theme
! Common
#define S_yellow        #b58900
#define S_orange        #cb4b16
#define S_red           #dc322f
#define S_magenta       #d33682
#define S_violet        #6c71c4
#define S_blue          #268bd2
#define S_cyan          #2aa198
#define S_green         #859900

! Dark
#define S_base03        #002b36
#define S_base02        #073642
#define S_base01        #586e75
#define S_base00        #657b83
#define S_base0         #839496
#define S_base1         #93a1a1
#define S_base2         #eee8d5
#define S_base3         #fdf6e3

Then I updated the X11 configuration with xrdb.

$ xrdb -load ${HOME}/.Xresources


Rofi, a replacement to dmenu to easily find a new program to launch.

Rofi's configuration also goes in the Xresources files.

Example for ~/.Xresources-dark:

!                  bg         border   separator
rofi.color-window: #dd002b36, #002b36, #dd073642
!                  bg         fg       altbg      hlbg       hlfg
rofi.color-normal: #dd002b36, #839496, #00002b36, #dd073642, #859900
rofi.color-active: #dd002b36, #268bd2, #00002b36, #dd073642, #268bd2
rofi.color-urgent: #dd002b36, #d33682, #00002b36, #dd073642, #d33682

Here is how it looks for me:

rofi dark & light examples


dircolors is the color setup for the ls command.

To have ls colorize the directory/files in a solarized fashion, we need to specify the dircolors parameters. I went with the joel-porquet/zsh-dircolors-solarized plugin for zsh.

Using zgen to manage my zsh plugins, I added the following line to my ~/.zshrc:

zgen load joel-porquet/zsh-dircolors-solarized

Here is an example of dircolors from Termite with 80% transparency:

dircolors solarized


i3 is a tiling window manager, allowing one to always see all opened windows, without them stacking above each other. With plenty of keystrokes, it makes it possible to control every windows only using the keyboard, making the mouse pretty much useless.

My i3 stack consists of:

  • i3-gaps-next, the development branch of a fork of i3wm offering more features, like gaps between windows instead of borders.
  • i3blocks for the status line
  • i3lock as screen locker.

In addition, for my solarized theme switcher, I used a fork of i3-style, where I defined my own transparent solarized themes, since I wasn't satisfied by the existing theme.

To execute the script, I added a new binding in i3's configuration file:

bindsym $mod+b  exec --no-startup-id ${HOME}/scripts/

My $mod button is set to Mod4, which is the Windows key in my XPS

  1. Hence, whenever I press Mod4-b, my applications will toggle between dark and light solarized modes. The b in the keystroke stands for "Background".

Finally, I added the following contents to the script:

#i3-style solarized-transparent-${newmode} -o ${HOME}/.config/i3/config --reload
coffee ${HOME}/scripts/ solarized-transparent-${newmode} -o ${HOME}/.config/i3/config --reload

If my pull request gets accepted upstream, I'll be able to use the normal i3-style script instead of the current coffee command.

For my statusbar, I only used accent colors to underline each i3block.

Here is how my i3 statusbar looks like:

i3blocks solarized


feh is an image viewer that can also be used to set the desktop background image.

To set the background image, simply pass the --bg-fill parameter to feh:

$ feh --bg-fill "${HOME}.config/wallpapers/solarized-mountains-${newmode}.png"

That will also create a file ~/.fehbg, which can then be reused. In my i3 configuration, I added the following line for that purpose:

exec_always --no-startup-id ~/.fehbg

For background image, I took a dark solarized image from Deviant Art:

solarized background dark

Then I modified it with Gimp to get a light solarized version. You normally only need to change the 4 background/foreground colors when toggling mode, accent colors staying the same in both modes. But the artist here used a darkened version of 4 accent colors to ease the transition between accent colors and the background color. Hence, I had to modify these shaded parts into their lightened counterpart. Here is how I proceeded:

def get_halfway_color(al, bl):
    '''Function to calculate the color in-between two HSL colors'''
    for a,b in zip(al,bl):
        yield min([a,b])+abs(a-b)/2

# [Hue, Saturation, Lightness]
bg_light = [46, 11, 93]
gold = [45, 100, 71]
red = [1, 79, 87]
purple = [238, 44, 77]
green = [175, 71, 63]

for color in [gold, red, purple, green]:
    print(list(get_halfway_color(bg_light, color)))

# Output: 
# [45.5, 55.5, 82.0]
# [23.5, 45.0, 90.0]
# [142.0, 27.5, 85.0]
# [110.5, 41.0, 78.0]

Why did I use HSL colors instead of RGB ? Because it's a much more intuitive way to find colors. After playing with it for a bit, I decided to only change the saturation and lightness, which gave the following result.

solarized background light

Note that it would have been ideal to work with CIELab colors, but since Gimp was showing HSL colors right off the bat, it was just simpler to go this way.


After using urxvt for many years, I switched to Termite, which behaves similarly in many ways and offers painless configuration like adding true transparency.

To set the solarized colors on Termite, edit the ~/.config/termite/config file and add the [colors] section. I used the configuration shared by alpha-omega/termite-colors-solarized for that purpose.

What I did was copying the solarized-dark and solarized-light files in ~/.config/termite/, adding my other termite configs to each file.

Then, similarly to Xresources, changing the termite solarized theme can be done as follows:

  1. Symlink the theme file to config: cd ~/.config/termite && ln -sf solarized-<dark|light> config
  2. Press Ctrl-Shift-R to reload the terminal.

Note: Only 4 lines differ between both configuration files, so there should be a smarter way to include them in the main config.

To reload the terminal programmatically, I proceed as follows:

$ ln -sf ${config}-$newmode $config
$ killall -USR1 termite


NeoVim is a highly configurable text editor forked from Vim.

For Vim, I re-used the color palette defined by lifepillar/vim-solarized8, and added the following in my ~/.vimrc:

Plug 'lifepillar/vim-solarized8'

nnoremap  <leader>B :<c-u>exe "colors" (g:colors_name =~# "dark"
    \ ? substitute(g:colors_name, 'dark', 'light', '')
    \ : substitute(g:colors_name, 'light', 'dark', '')
    \ )<cr>

fun! Solarized8Contrast(delta)
  let l:schemes = map(['_low', '_flat', '', '_high'], '"solarized8_".(&background).v:val')
  exe 'colors' l:schemes[((a:delta+index(l:schemes, g:colors_name)) % 4 + 4) % 4]

nmap <leader>- :<c-u>call Solarized8Contrast(-v:count1)<cr>
nmap <leader>+ :<c-u>call Solarized8Contrast(+v:count1)<cr>

This allows me to use Solarized with True colors (24-bit colors, or 16 million colors, supported by Termite). It also adds two interesting key bindings (my Leader key being ,):

  • ,-B will toggle the dark and light modes in Vim
  • ,-- and ,-+ allow me to change the contrast of the selected mode.

Note: I'm using vim-plug as Vim plugin manager, which is simple to use and full of smart features, for example allowing to lazy-load modules when their command is called.

pattern="colorscheme solarized8_"
perl -e "s/${pattern}${oldmode}/${pattern}${newmode}/g" -pi ${HOME}.vimrc
for socket in /tmp/nvimsocket*; do
    nvr --servername $socket --remote-send ",B<Enter>";

Then, I used nvr to send a color toggle command to running vim sessions. The reason I used it is that the +clientserver of neovim goes through the X-server (like vim --remote for that matter), or I'm working with neovim in a terminal without GUI. To create new nvim servers everytime I open vim, I added to my ~/.zshrc file the following:

function vim () {
    COUNT=$(($((ls /tmp/nvimsocket*) 2>&/dev/null|tail -n 1|grep -Po 'nvimsocket\K[0-9]*$') + 1))
    printf -v COUNT "%05d" $COUNT
    NVIM_LISTEN_ADDRESS=/tmp/nvimsocket${COUNT} nvim $@

This function will create a new socket file suffixed with an incremented number, so that nvr can easily retrieve all server and send them update commands. Note: neovim-remote has now fixed the --serverlist option, so we could refactore this piece of code.


The GIMP Toolkit is a platform for creating graphical user interfaces.

Since I'm using several GTK 2.0 applications, like Gimp, Thunar or Deluge, it also makes sense to update the gtk 2.0 color theme.

I went with the Numix Solarized themes. While the light theme looks pretty, I found some issues with the dark theme, especially unusable with my file manager Thunar. Hence, after fiddling a bit with the gtkrc file, I submitted a Pull Request to solve this issue.

To update opened applications, I re-used cpoakes' script to send events.

$ echo "include \"/usr/share/themes/NumixSolarized$([[ $newmode == 'dark' ]] \
    && echo 'Dark')/gtk-2.0/gtkrc\"" > ${HOME}/.gtkrc-2.0
$ python2.7 ${HOME}/scripts/gtkreload &

Google Chrome

I will discuss here a solution to customize Chrome using an extension-like theme. It can then be uploaded to the Chrome store and used by anyone from there.

Note that Google Chrome also has GTK 2.0 support, but will eventually use GTK 3.0 by default (currently implemented in a fork of Chromium, the Open Source project from which Google Chrome is based). To enable the GTK theme, Go to Settings, then Appearance and click on Use GTK+ theme. If the theme looks broken, try restarting Chrome. I figured out too late that the GTK theme isn't applied correctly to the top menu and tabs when clicking on Use GTK+ theme or using the gtkreload script, which is why I went with the theme extension solution. Since the Chrome header isn't updated properly (requiring to restart Chrome for the theme to fully take effect) and since I wasn't entirely satisfied with the Numix theme for Chrome anyways, I'll keep using my solution for the time being.

I used this Solarized Dark theme, and since I couldn't find a Solarized Light version, I built it myself.

I couldn't figure out any way to reload Chrome the same way it reloads itself when updating the settings or installing a new theme from the Chrome store. Therefore, I went with a restart approach, specifying the --load-extension=/path/to/theme parameter to the google google-chrome executable. Another problem naturally occured from that decision: When restarting an application, i3 will detect the windows being closed and automatically re-tile the other windows, then repeat the process once chrome is restarted, potentially breaking the window layout we had defined prior to changing the theme. To avoid this issue, we can improve the script to save the current layout before closing Chrome, then restore the layout once Chrome is restarted.

if [[ $(ps auxw|grep chrome|grep -v grep|wc -l) -gt 0 ]]; then
    mapfile -t workspaces <<< $(i3-msg -t get_workspaces | jq -r '.[] | .name')

    # Add save-tree logic here
    for ws in "${workspaces[@]}"; do
        i3-save-tree --workspace "$ws" > ~/.config/i3sessions/workspace-${ws:0:1}.json
        # Swallows all
        perl -e "s/\/\/ \"/\"/g" -pi ~/.config/i3sessions/workspace-${ws:0:1}.json

    # Kill Chrome
    killall chrome

    # Swallow other windows
    ids=$(xdotool search --onlyvisible --name '.*')
    ids=( $ids )
    for id in "${ids[@]}"; do
        xdotool windowunmap $id

    # Restore logic
    for ws in "${workspaces[@]}"; do
        i3-msg "workspace $ws; append_layout ~/.config/i3sessions/workspace-${ws:0:1}.json"

    # Go back to first workspace
    i3-msg "workspace ${workspaces[0]}"

    # Restart Chrome
    exec google-chrome-stable --load-extension=${HOME}/Projects/personal/google-chrome-solarized-${newmode}-theme &

    # Give some time for i3 to append the layout and chrome to start
    sleep 0.5

    # Unswallow other windows
    for id in "${ids[@]}"; do
        xdotool windowmap $id

While saving the layout with i3-save-tree is straightforward, restoring it with i3-msg "append_layout ..." was quite difficult, because it will simply add new containers next to existing containers. The trick was to use xdotool to swallow existing windows like Termite, and unswallow them for i3 to add them back in the new layout.

To clarify the terminology here, "swallowing" is similar to sending a window to the scratchpad, or in other words hide the window in a virtual workspace, which is managed by xdotool.

Resulting script

To update everything at once from a single script, all that is left is finding the current theme and execute each bit while calling the new theme.

I used the termite configuration file as base to retrieve the current mode and define the new mode:

oldmode=$([[ -z $(diff $config ${config}-dark) ]] && echo 'dark' || echo 'light')
newmode=$([[ $oldmode == 'dark' ]] && echo 'light' || echo 'dark')

The line [[ -z $(diff $config $dark) ]] runs a diff between the config file and the dark one. If the result is empty (both files are the same), then let's symlink the light configuration, otherwise let's symlink the dark one.

Note: Since we're symlinking files, there should be a smarter way to compare them than running diff.

And we're done! You can see below the full script:


oldmode=$([[ -z $(diff $termite_conf ${termite_conf}-dark) ]] && echo 'dark' || echo 'light')
newmode=$([[ $oldmode == 'dark' ]] && echo 'light' || echo 'dark')

# i3
# Toggle the following 2 lines if my PR gets merged in upstream i3-style
#i3-style solarized-transparent-${newmode} -o ${HOME}/.config/i3/config --reload
coffee ${HOME}/scripts/ solarized-transparent-${newmode} -o ${HOME}/.config/i3/config --reload

# Background
feh --bg-fill "${HOME}/.config/wallpapers/solarized-mountains-${newmode}.png"

# .Xresources
ln -sf ${HOME}/.Xresources-$newmode ${HOME}/.Xresources
xrdb -load ${HOME}/.Xresources

# Termite
ln -sf ${termite_conf}-$newmode $termite_conf
killall -USR1 termite

# Vim
pattern="colorscheme solarized8_"
perl -e "s/${pattern}${oldmode}/${pattern}${newmode}/g" -pi ${HOME}/.vimrc
for socket in /tmp/nvimsocket*; do
    nvr --servername $socket --remote-send ",B<Enter>";

# GTK2 apps (e.g Gimp, Thunar, Deluge, Chrome)
echo "include \"/usr/share/themes/NumixSolarized$([[ $newmode == 'dark' ]] \
    && echo 'Dark')/gtk-2.0/gtkrc\"" > ${HOME}/.gtkrc-2.0
python2.7 ${HOME}/scripts/gtkreload &

# Chrome
if [[ $(ps auxw|grep chrome|grep -v grep|wc -l) -gt 0 ]]; then
    mapfile -t workspaces <<< $(i3-msg -t get_workspaces | jq -r '.[] | .name')

    # Add save-tree logic here
    for ws in "${workspaces[@]}"; do
        i3-save-tree --workspace "$ws" > ~/.config/i3sessions/workspace-${ws:0:1}.json
        # Swallows all
        perl -e "s/\/\/ \"/\"/g" -pi ~/.config/i3sessions/workspace-${ws:0:1}.json

    # Kill Chrome
    killall chrome

    # Swallow other windows
    ids=$(xdotool search --onlyvisible --name '.*')
    ids=( $ids )
    for id in "${ids[@]}"; do
        xdotool windowunmap $id

    # Restore logic
    for ws in "${workspaces[@]}"; do
        i3-msg "workspace $ws; append_layout ~/.config/i3sessions/workspace-${ws:0:1}.json"

    # Go back to first workspace
    i3-msg "workspace ${workspaces[0]}"

    # Restart Chrome
    exec google-chrome-stable --load-extension=${HOME}/Projects/personal/google-chrome-solarized-${newmode}-theme &

    # Give some time for i3 to append the layout and chrome to start
    sleep 0.5

    # Unswallow other windows
    for id in "${ids[@]}"; do
        xdotool windowmap $id

And you can see here how it looks like for me:


As always, Linux is flexible enough to allow for any kind of customization, but it takes a lot of time to set up things the way we like. I didn't need to go so far into customizing my themes and did it for the sake of this article in hope that it will help other people using similar applications. But the result is satisfying, and it has proven very useful everytime I was in a bright or dark environment.

What could be improved ?

  • Replace the vim/nvr logic using the --serverlist option.
  • Time the execution of each part of the script, then re-order them accordingly to reduce the total load time and minimize the flickering effect when restoring the i3 layout.
  • Start chrome with cached pages, do not reload all tabs.
  • Go back to using the GTK theme for Chrome, update the theme to give a better look-and-feel, then investigate how to force colors to update in the header menu with gtkreload and remove the i3 save & restore layout code.
  • Integrate more applications: try the fork of Chromium with GTK 3.20 support and update its related theme; set up solarized colors for irssi, mps-youtube, Qt4 applications, etc.

Open Source Contributions made with this article:

Feel free to contact me if you have any question, comment or request regarding this article, and I'll keep it updated when I find some time!